The development of novel magnetic nanoparticles (MNPs) with satisfactory biocompatibility for biomedical applications has been the subject of extensive exploration over the past two decades. In this work, we synthesized superparamagnetic iron oxide MNPs coated with polystyrene sulfonic acid (PSS-MNPs) and with a conventional co-precipitation method. The core size and hydrodynamic diameter of the PSS-MNPs were determined as 8–18 nm and 50–200 nm with a transmission electron microscopy and dynamic light scattering, respectively. The saturation magnetization of the particles was measured as 60 emu g−1 with a superconducting quantum-interference-device magnetometer. The PSS content in the PSS-MNPs was 17% of the entire PSS-MNPs according to thermogravimetric analysis. Fourier-transform infrared spectra were recorded to detect the presence of SO3 − groups, which confirmed a successful PSS coating. The structural properties of the PSS-MNPs, including the crystalline lattice, composition and phases, were characterized with an X-ray powder diffractometer and 3D nanometer-scale Raman microspectrometer. MTT assay and Prussian-blue staining showed that, although PSS-MNPs caused no cytotoxicity in both NIH-3T3 mouse fibroblasts and SK-HEP1 human liver-cancer cells up to 1000 μg mL−1, SK-HEP1 cells exhibited significantly greater uptake of PSS-MNPs than NIH-3T3 cells. The low cytotoxicity and high biocompatibility of PSS-MNPs in human cancer cells demonstrated in the present work might have prospective applications for drug delivery.